Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

The Letters of the Younger Pliny by Pliny the Younger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… the work of getting anybody to cheerfully undertake the monotony and drudgery of education must be effected not by pay merely, but by a skillfully worked-up appeal to the emotions as well.

I read this book in preparation for a recent visit to Pompeii; and it was an excellent choice. The ancient letters and the ruined city make for an ideal pairing, as both offer a remarkable look into daily life in ancient Rome. Pliny had a long and eventful career: an orator, magistrate, lawyer, and writer. His correspondence includes mundane details, tender love letters, poetic reflections, philosophical musings, and much else. Whatever the subject, his personality shines through: intelligent, urbane, loyal, if a bit ostentatious and pompous. He is, above all, eloquent; and his letters are without exception written in superb prose.

Though each epistle is a valuable historical document, some are conspicuously noteworthy. Most interesting for me was his description of the eruption of Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of his illustrious uncle, Pliny the Elder. He recounts his uncle’s and his own experience in two letters to his friend the historian Cornelius Tacitus. Here, with an eye to posterity, perhaps, Pliny reaches the height of his literary skill as he relates his escape from the eruption:

We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have seen when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

The collection is also invaluable for the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. In these letters Pliny’s style is more restrained and formal; he takes the part of a supplicant and an apprentice. For the most part he is asking the Emperor for a favor or for advice. Much of it is concerned with the proper way to interpret the law and to distribute punishments, or else asking for permission to erect aqueducts, temples, and the like. Most extraordinary are two letters concerning the practice, spread, and prosecution of Christianity. Even at this early date, it was clear that the religion could grow rapidly: “In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country.”

In sum, I recommend this book to anyone and everyone interested in ancient Rome. The letters are at once a model of style and a window into the past. Few books offer so much insight and pleasure for such little drudgery.

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Review: The Decameron

Review: The Decameron
The Decameron

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it…

I did not think that a collection of tales from the late Middle Ages would be so raunchy and ribald. While artisans were busy erecting gothic cathedrals—symbols of humanity’s insignificance before an omnipotent deity—Boccaccio was busy writing this most human of books. Indeed, the Decameron can be seen as the humanistic reply to Dante’s Divine Comedy: a celebration of our very worldliness. In Boccaccio’s world, the keystone virtue is not holiness nor piety, but cunning; and those who lack it are sure to be the victims of those who possess it.

Seen from the present day, Boccaccio’s masterpiece seems progressive in many respects. For one, he treats of nobles and peasants indifferently; and in the final (and incredibly sadistic) story he even asserts that these distinctions are of no importance compared with personal merit. More shocking is Boccaccio’s frank portrayal of female sexuality, something that would be taboo for much of European history. At times Boccaccio even seems like a proto-feminist: Women are central to the book, as Boccaccio frames the collection of stories as a diversion for women who have been forced into idleness by their social position. To be sure, there are many regressive and even alarming views about women mixed in with his more “advanced” ideas; even so, he does a better job than, say, Dickens often does.

Another surprising feature of these stories is Boccaccio’s open anticlericalism. The way he speaks of monks and nuns would be scandalous even now. There are many moments in the book in which he seems to be advocating a kind of hippy-ish tolerance for the pleasures of the flesh, condemning all opponents to sensual delight as hypocrites and fools. He even portrays homosexuality as an amusing foible rather than a deadly sin. Considering all this, it is difficult to imagine the reaction if it had been published considerably later. It seems that tolerance does not progress in a neat line.

Boccaccio’s chief virtue as a storyteller is his ability to manipulate plot. In this he is the exact reflection of Shakespeare (one of Boccaccio’s borrowers), who had every gift except plot. Boccaccio’s characters are never round nor indeed memorable; they can for the most part be interchanged at random. But each of these 100 tales, with very few exceptions, is thoroughly charming for having all the elements of a good story: a setup (inevitably involving a man and a woman), a problem (normally somebody trying to sleep with someone else), a clever trick to solve it (and a dunce to suffer as a consequence), a dramatic climax (the heroes are almost foiled), and a satisfying conclusion. All together, these 100 stories are a treasure trove which every responsible storyteller must pilfer mercilessly. If you are going on a camping trip, you could do much worse than to bring a copy of the Decameron along for the evenings.

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Review: The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Review: The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia

Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia by Baltasar Gracián

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cada uno habla del objeto según su afecto.

This little book is one of the most read and translated works of the Spanish Golden Age. It has been surprisingly influential. Schopenhauer was a famous devotee, and even learned Spanish so that he could produce a translation (which went on to commercial success). Two English translations have been best-sellers, the first in 1892 and the second in 1992. Advice typically does not age well, but Gracián’s has stood the temporal test.

Yet for the reader of the original Spanish—especially the non-native reader—the book can be perplexing. Gracián was a major writer in the conceptismo movement: a literary style in which a maximum of meaning was compressed into a minimum of words, using every rhetorical trick of the trivium to achieve a style that seems to curl itself into a ball and then to explode in all directions. This can make the experience of reading Gracián quite akin to that of reading poetry—except here, unlike in poetry, you can be sure that there is a sensible meaning laying concealed underneath. When the antiquity of Gracián’s Castilian is added to the mix, the result is literary dish that is difficult to digest.

After a meaning is beaten out of Gracián’s twisted words, however, the result is some surprisingly straightforward advice. “Prudent” is the operative word, for Gracián manages to be idealistic and realistic at once, walking the fine like between cynicism and naïveté. Admittedly, however, the bulk of this advice is directed towards the successful courtier, and so is difficult to apply to less exalted positions. There is, for example, much advice concerned with how to treat inferiors and superiors, but in a world where explicit hierarchies are increasingly frowned upon (or at least tactfully concealed), the poor reader wonders what to make of it.

But much of the advice is timeless and universal. Make friends with those you can learn from (but not those who can outshine you!). Don’t let wishful thinking lead you into unrealistic hopes. Never lose your self-respect. The wise man gains more from his enemies than the fool from his friends. Know how to forget. Know how to ask. Look within… As any reader of Don Quixote knows, Spanish is a language exceedingly rich in proverbs; so it perhaps should come as no surprise that this language—so rhythmic and so easy to make rhymes with—is also an excellent vehicle for maxims. Gracián exploits the proverbial potential of Castilian to the maximum, expressing a sly but respectable philosophy in 300 pithy paragraphs.

Despite all the wit and wisdom to be found in these pages, however, I found myself wishing for amplification. Montaigne, though short on practical advice, is long on examples; so by the end of his essays the reader has a good idea how to put his ideas into practice. Gracián, by contrast, has no time for examples, and so the reader is left with a rather abstract imperative to work with. Needless to say I will not become a successful courtier anytime soon.

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Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

Review: ¿Qué es filosofía?

¿Qué es filosofía?¿Qué es filosofía? by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always believed that clarity is the courtesy of philosophy…

When I picture Ortega to myself, I imagine a man seated in the middle of a room full of books—the atmosphere smoky from frequent cigarettes—banging furiously away at a typewriter, going at it from morning till evening, rapidly accumulating piles of written pages by his side. Ortega was so prolific, and wrote about so many different things, that he could have filled an entire journal by himself—and nearly did. I have read only a fraction of his collected works, but this has included: an analysis of love, a political reckoning of Spain, a diagnosis of the social ills of Europe, and essays on literature and modern art. Now added to this list is an introduction to philosophy.

What I most admire in Ortega is this flexibility and his fluency: his omnivorous interest in the world and his ability to write smooth prose about complex issues. What I most deprecate is his tendency to rush headlong into a problem, sweep away controversy with grand gestures, and then to drop it at once. In other words, he is profligate with ideas but stingy with systems. His theories are always germinal; he leaves to others the difficult work of rigorous arguments and concrete applications. This is not damaging in cases such as aesthetic criticism, where rigor is hardly possible anyway; but it is ruinous in the case of philosophy, where logical consistency is so crucial.

The result of his approach is this series of lectures, which does not give a coherent view of philosophy’s history or its method. Instead, Ortega offers an essayistic series of opinions about the shortcomings of previous incarnations of philosophy and where he thinks philosophy should go next. I say “opinions” because, crucially, Ortega does not offer anything resembling a formal argument. This makes it difficult to accept his conclusions and, worse, makes it difficult to understand his opinions in the first place, since without the supporting skeleton of an argument his views remain formless.

Nevertheless, a short summary is still possible. Ortega derides science for being concerned with merely “secondary” problems, and mysticism for being irrational. Materialists metastasize existence into something inhuman and discrete, while idealists (such as Descartes) divorce the subject from his surroundings. Ortega’s solution is his phrase, “I am myself and my surroundings,” considering human experience—composed of the interpenetration of subject and surrounding circumstances—the basic fact of philosophy. In this, as in his emphasize on human freedom, he fits in well with existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre. But he differs from then, first, in writing legibly; and second in his strong emphasis on reason.

I think there are the germs of some worthy ideas contained here; but in order to really understand the ontological and epistemological ramifications of his positions, he would have to argue for them in a way entirely absent from this book.

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Review: Marianela

Review: Marianela

Marianela (Los mejores clásicos)Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Peréz Galdós is yet another of those Spanish authors whose wide fame in their own language is equalled by their wide obscurity elsewhere. In Spain his reputation as a novelist is second only to Cervantes; and yet the English translation of this book, one of his most famous, is out of print. This is a shame, since Galdós was a writer of rare gifts, a fountain of stories written in beautiful prose. In many ways he is reminiscent of Lope de Vega: both a critical and popular success, whose celebrity did not get in the way of his output. For like the golden age playwright, Galdós was extremely prolific. Apart from his few dozen—and often lengthy—social-realist novels, he wrote five series of historical novels, forty-six novels in all, covering the 19th century in Spain. Dickens was a slug by comparison.

This book is about Marianela, called La Nela, an orphaned, “deformed” adolescent who lives in the mining country in Cantabria. She is described as having spotty skin, thin hair, a malproportioned face, and most notably an underdeveloped body for her age. She is the “lazarillo,” or guide, to Pablo, a blind young man from a rich family. The two fall in love, and share many passionate sentiments on their walks together. But then the brilliant doctor, Teodoro Celepín, comes to visit Pablo, examines him, cures his blindness, and, well, Marianela’s life gets considerably worse. It is a simple story with a tragic arc.

For me the outstanding quality of Galdós’s writing is his prose. It is elegant but readable, balanced but energetic. Though there were many words scattered about that I did not understand, I never felt lost; to the contrary, I read quickly, avidly, completely sucked into the story in a way that is rare for me with Spanish books. As with many novelists, there are two main registers of Galdós’s writing on display: scene-setting description and dialogue. Galdós excels at both. The conversations between La Nela and Pablo, though sentimental in a way that only enamored teenagers can be, was totally convincing. And his description of the desolate, charred, and barren landscape of the mines is an excellent example of how a scene can contribute to the narrative of a book:

El vapor principió a zumbar en las calderas del gran automóvil, que hacía funcionar a un tiempo los aparatos de los talleres y el aparato de lavado. El agua, que tan principal papel desempeñaba en esta operación, comenzó a correr por las altas cañerías, de donde debía saltar sobre los cilindros. Risotadas de mujeres y ladridos de hombres que venían de tomar la mañana [beber aguardiente] precedieron a la faena; y al fin empezaron a girar las cribas cilíndricas con infernal chillido; el agua corría de una en otra, pulverizándose, y la tierra sucia se atormentaba con vertiginoso voltear, todando y cayendo de rueda en rueda hasta convertirse en fino polvo achocolatado.

And in English:

The steam began to hiss in the boilers of the big car, which operated the workshop equipment and the cleaning machines at the same time. The water, which played such a principal role in this operation, began to run through the high pipes, where it had to jump over the cylinders. The guffaws of women and the barks of men who came to take the morning [drink aguardiente] preceded the task; and at last they begun to turn the cylindrical sieves with a hellish shriek; the water ran from one to the other, spraying and splashing, and the dirty earth was tormented with dizzy turning, rolling and falling from wheel to wheel until it became a fine chocolate powder.

Few authors could provide such a gripping description of an industrial process and also present us with a character as memorable as La Nela. She is self-contained but selfless, self-willed but self-abnegating, intelligent but ignorant, a person who was given nothing and so expects nothing, but whose isolation caused her to form a novel perspective. Her notion of the world is pagan; she sees things in mythical, poetic categories that lead everyone around her to chastise her for being unchristian. Her tragedy, like so many, is the plight of undeveloped potential; in other circumstances, she may have done remarkable things; but being born poor, orphaned, and “ugly” has confined her to being a guide.

I have said all this in praise of Galdós prose, his scene-setting, his characterization, but of course there is more to this story. Thematically, this book is also quite rich—the relation between inner and outer sense, between inner and outer worth, the relation between knowledge and love—but I will not get into that. This book was too enjoyable to belabor it with heady analysis. To conclude, this novel has convinced me that Galdós is a master of the craft. I am eager to devour more of his books.

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Review: Don Quixote

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés TrapielloDon Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I know who I am,” replied don Quijote, “and I know who I can be…”

I bought this book under the sway of a caprice which, if it were not too hackneyed to say so, I would call quixotic. This was two years ago. I was in the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. I had just toured the palace—one of the finest in Spain—and was about to explore the French gardens, modeled after those in Versailles, when I encountered the gift shop. Normally I do not buy anything in gift shops, since half of it is rubbish and all of it is overpriced. But this book, this particular volume, called out to me and I obeyed.

It was a foolish purchase—not only because I paid gift-shop prices, but because my Spanish was not anywhere near the level I needed to read it. And at the time, I had no idea I would be staying in Spain for so long. There was a very good chance, in other words, that I would never be able to tackle this overpriced brick with Bible-thin pages. At least I left myself some hope. For this is not the original El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha—written in Spanish contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s English—but a bastardization: its style diligently modernized by the writer Andrés Trapiello. Even with this crutch, and even with an additional two years of living in Spain, this book was a serious challenge.

Before charging headlong into the thickets of criticism, I want to say a word in praise of Trapiello’s edition. Cervantes’s Spanish is not as difficult as Shakespeare’s English, but it still foreign enough to prove an obstacle even to native speakers. I know many Spaniards, even well-read ones, who have never successfully made it through El Quijote for this very reason (or so they allege). Trapiello has done the Spanish-speaking world a great service, then, since he has successfully made El Quijote as accessible as it would have been to its first readers, while preserving the instantly recognizable Cervantine style. And while I can see why purists would object to this defacement of hallowed beauty, I would counter that, if ever there were a book to painlessly enjoy, it is El Quijote.

To get a taste of the change, here is Trapiello’s opening lines:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, vivía no hace mucho un hidalgo de los de lanza ya olvidada, escudo antiguo, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Consumían tres partes de su hacienda una olla con algo más de vaca que carnero, ropa vieja casi todas las noches, huevos con torreznos los sábados, lentejas los viernes y algún palomino de añadidura los domingos.

And here is the original:

En un lugar de la Mancha, du cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lentejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían tres partes de su hacienda.

Now, undeniably something is lost in the transition. Cervantes’s “duelos y quebrantos” (lit. “aches and pains”), for example, is undeniably more evocative than Trapiello’s “huevos con torreznos” (eggs with bacon); but without Trapiello I would have no idea what Cervantes meant. It is also worth noting how similar the two are; Trapiello has taken care to change only what he must.

Onward to the book itself. But I hesitate. The more I contemplate this book, the more I think that a critic must be as daft as the don and as simple as his squire to think he can get to the bottom of it. Cervantes was either extremely muddle-headed or fantastically subtle, since this book resists any definite conclusions you may try to wring from its pages. Perhaps, like many great books, it simply got out of the author’s control. Just as Tolstoy set out to write the parable of a fallen woman and gave us Anna Karenina, and as Mark Twain set out to write a boys’ book and invented American literature, it seems Cervantes set out to write a satire of chivalric romances and produced one of the great works of universal art. It is as if a New Yorker cartoonist accidentally doodled Guernica.

The key to the book’s enduring beauty, I think, is Cervantes’s special brand of irony. He is the only author I know who can produce scorn and admiration in the same sentence. He is able to ruthlessly make fun of everything under the sun, while in the same moment praising them to the heavens. The book itself embodies this paradox: for it is at once the greatest rejection of chivalric romance and its greatest embodiment—an adventure tale that laughs at adventure tales. There is no question that Cervantes finds the old don ridiculous, and he makes us agree with him; yet by the end, Quijote is more heroic than Sir Galahad himself.

The central question the books asks is whether idealism is noble or silly. There is no question that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is a hilarious figure. But do we laugh at his expense, or at our own? Is his idealism pathetic, or is it our realism? The book resists both horns of this dilemma, until finally we must conclude that we are all—dreamers and realists alike—equally ridiculous. For we all reside in a social world whose rules only exist in our beliefs and in our actions, a world which we create but do not design. It is only Quijote who seems to realize (however unconsciously) that, by changing the script, we can recreate the world. And he does. By the time we get to Part Two, everyone is playing along with Quijote.

Even so, I am not able to go so far as Miguel de Unamuno, and consider Quijote a sort of messiah. I do not think Cervantes’s irony permits this. For Quijote truly is out of touch, and frequently gets pummeled for it. And even when his fantasy inspires others to play along, and to help him create his new world, they never do so for disinterested reasons. Some, including Sancho, play along for gain; others do so to control or to help Quijote; and most do it just to have some fun at his expense. This is the dilemma faced by all revolutionaries: they have the vision to see a better world, the courage to usher it in with their actions, and the charisma to inspire others to follow them; but most worldlings chose to play along for ulterior motives, not for ideals; and so the new world becomes as corrupt as the old one. To put this another way, Quijote’s problem is not that he is out of touch with the social order, but that he is out of touch with the human heart.

Much of the greatness of this book lays in the relationship between the don and his squire. Few friendships in literature are so heartwarming. Sancho, in his simplicity, is the only one who can even partially meet Quijote in his new world—as a genuine participant in Quijote’s make-believe. Of course, Sancho is not free from ulterior motives, either. There is the island he is to rule over. But the longer the story goes on, the more Sancho believes in his master, and the less he pursues material gain. We are relieved to see that, when finally offered his island, the squire comes running back to the don in a matter of days. As the only two inhabitants of their new world, as the only two actors in their play, they are homeless without one another.

It is useful to compare Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s method of characterization. As Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare’s characters are most truly themselves when they are alone, soliloquizing. When together, on the other hand, even close friends and lovers never seem to communicate perfectly, but talk past each other, or talk for their own benefit, or simply show off. But don Quijote and Sancho Panza are most truly themselves when they are with each other; they draw one another out and spur one another on; they ceaselessly bicker while remaining absolutely loyal; they quibble and squabble while understanding one another perfectly. When they are separated during Sancho’s sojourn on the island, the reader feels that each has lost more than half of himself. For my part, though I am not sure it is more “realistic,” I find Cervantes’s friendship more heartening than the bard’s. Though they begin as polar opposites, the squire and the knight influence one another as the story progresses, eventually coming to resemble one another. This beats Romeo and Juliet by a league.

What strikes most contemporary readers of this ur-novel is its modernity. Formally, Cervantes is far more daring than his Victorian successors. This is admittedly more apparent in Part Two, when Cervantes has his characters travel around a world where Part One has already been published and read widely, and where the spurious Part Two by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) has just been released. This leads to self-referential tricks worthy of the coolest postmodernist: the duo encountering readers of the prequels and commenting on their own portrayal. Another daring touch was Cervantes’s use of the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Berengeli—whose Arabic book, found on the streets of Toledo, he is merely transcribing into Castilian—which allows him to comment on the text he is writing: praising the historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and skipping over boring sections in the “original.”

All this is done, not merely to be clever, but to reinforce the sense of infinite irony that pervades the text. The gap opened up by these tricks is what gives Cervantes room to be so delightfully ambiguous. As the authorship is called into question, and as the characters—who are imaginative actors to begin with—become aware of themselves as characters, the sense of a guiding intelligence crafting the story becomes ever more tenuous. The final irony, then, is that this self-referential irony does not undermine the reality of the story, but only reinforces it. In Part Two, especially, the characters leap from the book into reality, becoming both readers and writers of themselves—so real, indeed, that we risk repeating the don’s error of mistaking the book with reality.

Having said all this in praise of El Quijote, I should mention some of the book’s flaws. These are mostly confined to Part One, wherein Cervantes inserts several short novelas that have, for the most part, aged poorly. At the time there was, apparently, a craze for pastoral love stories involving shepherds and shepherdesses, which nowadays is soppy sentimental trash. One must also admit that Cervantes’s was a very mediocre poet, so the verse scattered throughout these pages can safely be skipped. On the whole, though the book’s most iconic moments are in Part One, Part Two is much superior and more innovative.

Part Two is also far sadder. And this is the last ambiguity: the reader can never fully decide whether to laugh or cry. Tragedy and comedy are blended so deeply together that no emotional response seems adequate. I still have not decided with any certainty how I feel or what I think about this book. All I know is that I wish it could go on forever—that I could read another chapter of don Quijote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures for the rest of my life. To reach the end is unbearable. Don Quijote should live eternal life. And he will.

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Review: Stones of Venice

Review: Stones of Venice

The Stones of VeniceThe Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.

I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.

Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.

It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.

This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:

I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.

Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.

Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.

In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.

Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: Letters on England

Review: Letters on England

Letters on EnglandLetters on England by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable.

Voltaire and Rousseau are usually grouped together as the twin pillars of the 18th century, the first championing reason and reform, the second romanticism and revolution. After reading them back to back, I know who I prefer. Rousseau is arguably a far more original thinker and writer; yet his personality is so irksome and his arguments so irrational that it can be unpleasant to read him. Voltaire, by contrast, is witty, charming, and delightful; and after Rousseau’s lyrical fantasies, Voltaire’s deflating sarcasm is extremely refreshing.

This book is a collection of essays on topics related to England, written after Voltaire’s three-year stay on the island nation. He interviews a Quaker, visits Parliament, goes to the theater, and then expounds the philosophy of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He skips lightly from topic to topic, a barb here, a jest there, while revealing an impressive range of knowledge—from inoculation to history, from theater to physics. In general his opinion of England is quite positive, arguably idealized, seeing England as a land of toleration and philosophy. Indeed, the only thing that Voltaire shows some reservation towards is Shakespeare, whose dramas struck Voltaire’s Enlightenment taste as lacking refinement.

The book was controversial when published, since many in France saw Voltaire’s praise of England—correctly—as veiled criticism of their own country. Nowadays, this political purpose only adds to the essays’ charms, as we see Voltaire as a champion of an open society, from religion to science to literature, in addition to an omnivorous intellectual. Few books pack so much into so little space.

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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is an ordeal. It is very long and very depressing. Charting the Third Reich from the birth of Hitler to the collapse of Germany, Shirer tells the whole story with the sweep of a novelist and the detail of an accountant. He wrote the book after having access to huge stores of documents captured by the Allies after the war. Diaries, schedules, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, the minutes of meetings, and much more were the raw material marshalled to create this tome.

As is often noted, Shirer was a journalist, not a historian, a fact that helps to explain much about this book. He lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent from 1933 to the end of 1940, reporting on the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of the war, until the threat of the Gestapo forced him to return home. This firsthand experience lent color to his narrative, but also focused his attention on readily observable events. Rather than talk of larger trends—social shifts, economic pressures, cultural developments—Shirer focuses almost exclusively on the doings of individuals in power, such as he had been reporting on.

This focus makes the narrative vivid and pleasingly concrete, but also results in a superficial analysis. A historian would naturally spend more time on the rampant inflation of the times, the institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, the wider political trends in Europe, the mechanics of a totalitarian state, and so on. Further, Shirer’s explanation of why Germany embarked on such a destructive enterprise boils down to: because it is peopled by Germans. That is, he locates a kind of cultural essence in the German people, an essence stemming from the Reformation and especially Martin Luther, added to by Hegel and then by Nietzsche, which came to full fruition in National Socialism. But this sort of cultural essentialism is, for me, just intellectual laziness. It can be used to explain anything or everything, since these posited cultural qualities are vague and unobservable.

In any case wider historical analysis plays a very small part in this book, which is mainly a record of the decisions and actions of the leading men of the Nazi regime. That is to say that this book is a political and not a military history. The Second World War is discussed, of course, but only insofar as its developments affected or were caused by the Nazi leaders. Shirer is mainly concerned with charting the rise to power of these ruthless men: how they outsmarted the Weimar Republic leaders, fooled the international community, bullied and threatened their way to conquests, and finally instigated a war that resulted in their own ruin.

The balance of the book is tilted heavily towards the rise of the Third Reich. This can make for some dreary reading. In retrospect it is stupefying to witness how blind, inept, and spineless were Hitler’s opponents, first within Germany and then beyond its borders, until the final crisis spurred the world into action against him. Though Shirer’s sturdy prose is normally quite plain and unadorned, he has a steady instinct for the dramatic and writes several unforgettable scenes. Nevertheless the scale of detail Shirer saw fit to include sometimes weighs down the narrative into benumbing dullness. The endless, petty diplomatic maneuvers that preceded the beginning of the War—negotiations, ambassadors, threats, ultimatums, calculations, second thoughts, and so on—made it a relief when the soldiers finally started shooting.

These political dealings of the Nazis constitute the vast bulk of this book. It is a masterclass in how far a little cunning, shameless lying, and absolute ruthlessness can get you. It is also a lesson in the need to cooperate to take decisive action against common threats. In the years since Vietnam, many have concluded that the main lesson to be drawn from America’s foreign policy is the folly of interventionist wars. After the First World War, the Western powers were understantly ever more chary of violence. And yet, at least in Shirer’s telling of the history, a timely show of force could have nipped Hitler’s rise in the bud. If England and France had upheld their treaties and defended their territories and their allies, Hitler could not have amassed so much power at a time when the German military was still small. (Though it must be said that Shirer’s intellectual weakness appears here, too, since he attributes this inaction to pure cowardice.)

In any case, this does bring out an interesting dilemma in foreign policy concerning the benefits and risks of violent intervention. In the case of Hitler, timely action could have prevented a disastrous conflict. And yet in many other historical cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, the threat of non-intervention was vastly overestimated, while the cost of intervention vastly underestimated. The word “estimate” is key here, since these decisions must necessarily be based on guesses of future threats and costs—guesses which may easily be wrong. Since it is impossible to know with certainty the scale of a threat that a situation may pose if left unchecked, there is no surefire way out of this dilemma. This, of course, is just a part of a wider dilemma in life, since so many of our everyday decisions must necessarily be made based on guesses of what the future holds.

You can see that this book, though a popular account, is not lightweight in its details or its implications. Yet it does show its age. Published in 1960, it was written before many valuable sources of information became available, such as the French archives. It also shows its age in its occasional references to homosexuality, which Shirer treats as a perverted vice. This is, of course, morbidly ironic, considering the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (something that Shirer fails to mention). But all in all The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains a gripping popular overview of this nightmarish time.

(Cover attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16196; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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